Unfamiliar Terms

During the summer of 2009, we were working on the history book about the Space Shuttle, ‘Wings in Orbit’. We had hired three summer interns, college students, to help with the book. Their primary assignments were to build the appendices, check references, make tables, and the like. Unusual for NASA interns, these three were not technical majors, but history, English, and social science majors. They did a great job for us.

One of the ‘other duties as assigned’ that we gave the interns was to read a chapter a week and report on it to the editorial board. All the writing was done by the engineers and scientist who worked on the shuttle program, and, sadly, engineers are not always known for excellence in written communications. We asked the interns to provide a critical look at the readability of each chapter and to be especially on the lookout for unfamiliar terms or acronyms that would make the text hard to follow for the general public.

One memorable week, one of the interns drew the assignment of reading the draft chapter on the historical setting of the space shuttle. I thought this might be unnecessary since Dennis Webb is a great writer and there was almost nothing technical in the chapter. At the end of the week, we convened the editorial board for a number of topics and had the intern’s reports at the end of the agenda. First up was a review of the chapter on the APUs and hydraulics. As you might expect, the intern pointed out several instances of very technical jargon and a number of undefined acronyms, all of which would have to be cleared up by rewrite. Then we covered a chapter on another technical subject with similar results. Finally it was time for the report on the history chapter. The young lady, probably a sophomore level college student, said that the chapter was very well written, easy to understand, and she had no recommendations for rewrite except for one term that she was unfamiliar with. ‘What was that?’ we inquired. She replied that the term she did not understand was:

‘Cold War’


I was thunderstruck. For someone of my generation, the idea that anyone would not know about the cold war is unthinkable. A short discussion ensued to make sure we had communicated correctly, but the bottom line was that she really hadn’t heard the term before and was unfamiliar with the concept.

More recently I had a conversation with a friend whose children are early high schoolers. He and his son were home alone one evening and decided to watch a movie together. On the schedule that evening was “The Hunt for Red October” based on the book by Tom Clancy. My friend reports that his teenage son didn’t quite get it. He kept asking why there was a big deal; after all the Russians are our friends, right?

Both of these young people were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Those were ‘current events’ shortly before they were born. Given the lag in grade school history texts, those events were too recent to be covered.

When I was their age, nuclear annihilation stared us in the face. I can remember, probably when I was in 4th or 5th grade, when my parents came home from a Civil Defense meeting with plans of how to build a fallout shelter (we didn’t build one). In middle school the civics teacher showed us the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission – forerunner to the Department of Energy) films with the bomb tests in Nevada. You know the ones where they set up houses, mannequins with clothes, cars, household goods, etc., to see how a nearby bomb blast would affect those things. The message from those documentaries was that it was unsurvivable. I got to practice the ‘duck and cover’ method of hiding under our classroom desks if there was a bright flash in the sky. Again, the message came down that we were on the edge of annihilation and not likely to survive.

In high school history we studied the Cuban Missile Crisis and how close we came to the end in October of 1961. There were B-52 bombers on armed standby at air force bases near my home. I can remember as a high school student, plotting the likely fallout path from ‘targets’ near my home based on prevailing winds so that we would know which way to travel to survive following a nuclear exchange. That wouldn’t have helped either.


How that affected the psychology of two generations has been studied by sociologists.  It motivated people in so very many unusual ways.
And today’s kids don’t know what the term “cold war” means. I think that is a good thing. Not that they don’t need to understand history, but that those days are behind us. Hopefully for good, notwithstanding some burbles in the geopolitics these days.
There are a lot fewer nuclear weapons in the world these days – still too many – but the finger on the trigger seems to be a lot more relaxed. For our grandchildren’s sake I hope it stays that way.


We worry about a lot of things these days; there are serious problems all around us. But I think the level of worry is at a much lower intensity than it was 30 or 40 years ago.



And that is a good thing.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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21 Responses to Unfamiliar Terms

  1. Victor de Moraes says:

    I wonder how Americans must have suffered in the Cold War. I think you left strengthened. Children always understand when taught, the pain of it. There are always examples. From historical examples, like England France, Athens and Troy, Chinese and Mongolian, and modern examples like North Korea, South Korea rivalry. It siege. It’s suffocating. It’s frightening. Unfortunate that students reported level do not have sense of history, and American history. Because the Cold War is detached part of American history.

  2. Guillaume says:

    As a college history teacher “in the trenches,” at a small third-tier liberal arts place, I have learned to assume nothing. A full two-hour session is spent in my courses on the bomb and on the space program reviewing the Cold War and its premises before we move on. They are very bright students, many first-generation college kids, so eager to learn and gettheir money’s worth. However, a) they never lived through the nuclear fear b) their parents never told them about it for a variety of reasons; and c) history is no longer required. In PA, English and Math all throughout elementary are tested. No longer history. In NY state, history will now become an optional subject in case you prefer to take… engineering! I have to disagree with you that it’s a good thing they do not know the term “Cold War.” It exists throughout history, starting with Thucydides’s description of the Athens-Sparta distrust and carrying on with our latest 1991-2003 dealings with Iraq.

    The kids/students need to know that 60 cents on every dollar their grandparents paid Uncle Sam in the 1960s went to supporting military projects. Yet they won’t understand the rationale without a historical context (i.e. going beyond the facts to provide analysis.) And how could they grasp the gestation and operation of STS as well as its classified missions without that? By watching “Starship Troopers?” Well, sad, but back to trenches. There are always a couple who pick it up, so it is worth trying.

    • David Seidel says:

      Guillaume, I completely agree. I occasionally marveled at the dilemma that my son faced, when he was in high school, being responsible for the thirty years of history that had occurred since I was his age. There always has to be some triage on what content is included and in what depth.

      But that said, I don’t believe that the Cold War is any more dispensable an historical concept than the Great Depression. The world of today is a direct consequence of the geopolitics of the 1950’s through 80’s and its aftermath in the 90’s. To be unfamiliar with the Cold War is a cultural literacy gap. I didn’t live through the Great Depression but I understand that it directly affects financial markets and commerce today.

      I had an ‘oopsie’ moment as a high school science teacher. (I had many but here’s a germane one.) I was prattling merrily along about subduction zone vulcanism, earthquakes and tsunamis when I suddenly realized my students had no idea what or where the Aleutian Islands were. So I slammed on the brakes and fixed that problem; I’m pretty sure the lesson made a heck of a lot more sense from that point on. Good teaching is always about having students reach out from where conceptually they actually are.

      Why does this matter? It is hard to find an issue that doesn’t include both analysis of technical issues and historical context. Showing up at the ballot box is necessary but not sufficient. A broad well balanced education across subjects is a requirement for maintaining a Jeffersonian democracy.

      Ditto as well on the couple of students that are getting 110% out of the lesson. There were several times when we went into content beyond what was ‘going to be on the test’ because there were a few students that were totally digging it. The rest of them had to endure but it made for some pretty rewarding teaching.

  3. ralphhightower says:

    After that exchange, I wonder what kids are being taught. I work with people who learned about the Apollo Moon Landing through history books. In 2009, NASA rebroadcast the Apollo 11 audio as part of the 40th anniversary. I got one coworker hooked on listening to the retransmission even though he wasn’t around when it happened.

    Wings in Orbit was a “must buy” book for me!

  4. walt pinkston says:

    Just a couple of weeks ago, I had a similar experience in a completely different setting.

    My daughter is an elementary school teacher, and this is her first year with kindergarten. She asked me to bring my camera along on the class field trip to the nearby fire station. There were 3 classes of kids (about 45-50 of them) walking the two blocks to the fire station on their first trip away from school. They got to climb into the cab of a fire truck, wander through the garage and see all of the equipment, watch a ladder engine demonstrate its awesome extension ladder, and meet some real firemen. It was a great trip.

    But when the fire safety class was held, that’s when the “failure to communicate” scene happened. The firemen were trying to give the standard warning about not playing with matches. That was fine, until one of the kids asked, “What are matches?” Turns out that none of the kids had ever heard about or seen matches. Most people don’t use matches anymore. That was a first for the firemen, and for me.

    It was sort of our “cold war” moment.

  5. Dan Adamo says:

    Wayne, I agree younger generations not having to experience the Cold War and its threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD) is a healthy trend. But I’m appalled that a liberal arts undergraduate would be ignorant of the Cold War. As with many other similar anecdotes (I watched too many sessions of “Jay Walking”), this one evokes the Harry S. Truman quote, “The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.”

    And to further belabor my point, President Truman’s quote is interpreted at answers.com to mean, “An event in the world is only new if it happens. If an event never happens it can not become history.” With the widespread ignorance about modern global events and how the first Cold War President perceived them, I can only fear those events are destined to be repeated much sooner than we’d like.

  6. Frank Ch. Eigler says:

    I wonder if the uninformed young lady was on the other hand keenly familiar, if not sympathetic, with tropes representative of the losing ideology of that war.

  7. The Cuban Missile Crisis was in 1962.

  8. The NRC recommended in the 2013 Next Generation Science Standards and in the earlier Frameworks for the Next Gen Science Standards that space (space flight, space exploration…) be covered in the science curriculum across the spectrum of grades. It is needed; I gave a talk a couple weeks ago in Pasadena, TX on a Saturday afternoon, less than 10 miles from JSC. There was an audience of about 35, predominantly kids under 12, but with several adults and a couple of seniors. I brought models of all of the manned spacecraft of the US and Russia (similar scales), from Vostok and Mercury up through Orion, Dragon, Dreamchaser and CST, with the ISS the largest at about 8 ft across. As I started, I asked who could tell me the names of each. About a half dozen recognized and could name the Shuttle (mainly the adults though one under 12 also got it). Fewer got the Apollo “moon lander”, only adults. No one could identify the ISS or any of the other spacecraft.

  9. Dennis Webb says:

    Wayne, thanks for the kind shoutout on my writing. I am indeed a communicator by trade, but the readability of these sentences and paragraphs is due to staff historian Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, who did nearly all of the writing. We did collaborate on tone and scope, and I created many of the illustrations. Thanks again for letting me participate in this remarkable book.

    Re “Cold War” – roger that on this better world. I recall an episode of my adolescent anxiety about the potential for nuclear annihilation. I talked to my mom and she gave me the baleful eye, “well, you lived with it your whole life. Imagine what it was like for us, slowly discovering that everyone could be killed in a nuclear war.”

    This generational learning thing is recursive. I wonder what important lessons from history our generation has not properly absorbed?

    Keep writing.

  10. Andrew_W says:

    Maybe someone should remind the young lady that Google is her friend, Google being something more recent than the Cold War.

  11. Beth says:

    As a child of the cold war, I’m certainly grateful those particular days are behind us, but I’m not sure that we live in a safer world today; the finger on the ‘trigger’ is so much harder to define. When the Soviet Union was the enemy, we knew who he was, and what he was capapbe of. Today, the enemy is global terrorism; it has many faces, it is much more difficult to pin down and respond to.

    I’m not sure any generation would trade its troubles, as desperate at they were, for another generations troubles.

  12. Bob says:

    I don’t know, with Putin acting the way he is, and news articles about Russian hacking of our infrastructure, we may be headed for another Cold War.

  13. rbonini says:

    Perhaps its not a good thing.

    Those who forget the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat it. And we really don’t want to repeat any version of the the Cold War.

    • waynehale says:

      Parents always try to shield their children from the ugly aspects of life, but at some point a good parent must introduce them to important topics so that they grow into educated adults themselves

  14. Scott says:

    I remember watching those films in school. Duck and cover, like that school desk is going to save you from a nuclear blast, don’t look at the flash. Getting a map of Missouri and making circles around Whiteman Air Force Base to see if we were far enough away (a little bit north-east of Kansas City) and how much damage would we receive, depending on the size of the warhead.

  15. Paul Schermerhorn says:

    Being from Canada, we were stuck in the middle. My home turf of SouthWestern Ontario was within range of the Cuban based intermediate range ballistic missiles. We also had the worry of Soviet bombers coming “over the Pole”. To combat the bomber threat Canada fielded US designed nuclear weapons. We had fighters carrying nuclear tipped missiles as well as ground launched missiles at the ready to attempt to bring down the Soviet bombers “en-masse. These systems with names like “Bomarc”, “Genie”, and my favourite “Honest John”, always at the ready to spring to action should the DEW(Distant Early Warning) Line indicate threats “en route”.
    We Canadians faced “Incineration Without Representation” so we fielded nukes on Canadian soil as well as Canada’s part in regards to NATO operations in West Germany to stop the massive numbers of Soviet tanks which would surely come into Western Europe.

    Thankfully we de-nuked in 1984 only months after Lieutenant Colonel Stanislov Petrov discounted 2 seperate alerts that 5 American Minuteman ICBM’s were inbound to attack his country. His only reason to not elevate the warning was that his training told him that an American first strike would be massive with hundreds of threats, not just 5 missiles. If Petrov had raised the alarm it is questioned whether or not Soviet leadership would have waited for confirmation, which would have significantly reduced their reaction time, or simply commanded a full strike against the US. If that occurred, our world would be a very different place today.
    There would be no doubt that the NASA intern would have heard of the “Cold War” or at least the war with Russia.

    Cold War paranoia fueled the massive budget increases that NASA saw in the 60’s. I wonder what NASA would be like today without the “threat” of the Cold War. Would some of Americas proudest historical moments even have happened? Would there be American foosteps on the Moon? Sometimes extremely motivating world events aren’t always bad.

  16. BobtheRegisterredFool says:

    I see the Cold War as deeply relevant to modern politics. Absent a solid understanding of the forces involved, one must necessarily be ignorant of the causes of huge chunks of 20th century history.

    Which means there are war related risks that one is less able to assess, and hence less able to mitigate.

    For example, ‘still too many’. One thing that makes Cold Wars more likely than Hot Wars is the risk that one could not defeat, in a first strike, the other guy’s ability to retaliate. Lowering the number of devices a country has decreases this risk for other powers. Letting the devices age and become less reliable also decreases this risk. Decreasing the supply both Russia and America have eventually makes the risk of attacking either or both a lot more attractive to the capabilities of powers crazier and less cowardly than the Russians.

    Without both wisdom, and a deep understanding of the Cold War, and other conflicts, the decisions we make will bring the next world war closer, and make us less able to mitigate its scope and severity.

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